Zardosht ( Zarathushtra ) & His Religion


ebi amirhosseini
by ebi amirhosseini


Date of Zarathushtra

One of the most important, and dividing, of all issues regarding the Iranian history is “the date of Zarathushtra”, that is the date when he lived and composed his Gathas. Different sources ranging from linguistic evidence to textual sources and traditional dates have been used by various scholars to determine the date of Zarathushtra.

Accordingly, any date from the 6th century BC to 6000 BC has been suggested, although some with more merit than others. Here we shall look at the most prominent of these arguments.

A point of view held by many prominent scholars, among them Taghizadeh and Henning and continued by Gnoli among others, is what is known as “the Traditional Date of Zoroaster”. This date which was suggested in the Sasanian commentaries on the Avesta (Bundahišn), gives the date of Zarathushtra’s life as “258 years before Alexander”. However one might want to interpret this statement (whether from the date of Alexander’s entry to Iran or even possibly from what is known as the “Selucid Era”), the traditional dating would put Zarathushtra at 6th century BC. This placement is particularly attractive when one notices that this dating would make Darius and Zarathushtra contemporaries of sort, making Darius’ prominent mention of “Ahuramazda” and other Zorostrian motifs quite appropriate. Furthermore, the fact that Zarathushtra’s benefactor, Kavi Wishtaspa, closely reminds us of the name of Darius’ father, Wishtaspa, who was the Satrap of Parthia during the time of Cyrus the Great in the middle of the 6th century BC.

According to this view, Zarathushtra lived in the court of Darius’ father as the chief clergy and influenced Darius as a young man. It was due to this influence that Darius makes constant mentions of Ahuramamazda and other Zoroastrian motifs in his inscriptions. The traditional tale of Zarathushtra's death, being slain by invading “Turan” warriors has also been affiliated with the unrests of Darius’ early years on the throne and the attacks of the rulers of Drangiana and Sogdiana on Bactria.

However, from an early time, scholars such as Bartholomea and Christensen noticed the problems with “Traditional Date”, namely the linguistic difficulties that it presents. As we know, Zarathushtra himself composed the 18 poems that make-up the oldest parts of the Avesta, known as “the Gathas”. The language of the Gathas, as well as the text known as Yasna Haptanghaiti (the Seven Chapter Sermon), is called “Old Avestan” and is significantly different and more archaic than the language of the other parts of the Avesta, “Young Avestan”. On the other hand, Old Avestan is very close to the language of the Rig-Veda (known as Vedic Sanskrit). The closeness in composition of Old Avestan and Vedic is so much that some parts of Gathas can be transliterated to Vedic only by following the rules of sound change (such as the development of Indo-Iranian “s” to Avestan “h”). These similarities suggest that Old Avestan and Vedic were very close in time, probably putting Old Avestan at about one century after Vedic. Since the date of the composition of Rig-Veda has been put at somewhere between the 15-12th centuries BC, we can also assume that Gathas were composed close to that time, at sometimes before 1000 BC.

Furthermore, a look at the Gathas and their composition shows us that the society in which they were composed was a nomadic society that lived at a time prior to settlement in large urban areas and depended greatly on pastoralism. This would stand sharply apart from the view of a Zarathushtra living in the court of an Achaemenid satrap such as Wištaspa. Also, the absence of any mention of Achaemenids or even any West Iranian tribes such as Medes and Persians, or even Parthians, in the Gathas makes it unlikely that historical Zarathushtra ever lived in the court of a 6th century Satrap. As a result, the present author is more inclined to believe that Zarathushtra lived sometimes in the 13th to 11th centuries BC, prior to the settlement of Iranian tribes in the central and west of the Iranian Plateau.

Life of Zarathushtra

The traditional story of Zarathushtra’s life, told in the Sasanian Avesta, tells us that Spitaman Zarathushtra was born after a series of miraculous events that moved his divine substance through his mother’s family. His father was Purushasp, a member of the Spitaman clan (Denkard 7, ch. 2). According to some later Sasanian tales, Zarathushtra was born in Media Minor (Atropatene) and received his revelation there (Zand Avesta). Following constant rejection by his fellow countrymen, Zarathushtra took refuge in the court of Kavi Wishtaspa where his religion was accepted by the king and his court. According to late tradition, Wishtaspa ordered the inscription of the Avesta on twelve thousand cow skins with gold. Many years of war followed between Wishtaspa and his “Wrong worshipping” enemies, most importantly the Turani ruler, Arjaspa. Finally, Zarathushtra was killed while praying in Bactria by one of the priests of the wrong religion that had entered the city with the conquering armies of Arjaspa.

The above tale, although mostly legendary, can lead us to some possible accurate episodes in Zarathushtra’s life. His birth in Media Minor is the first problem we face. This claim, made in a few late sources, has gained prominence in many scholarly works such as Olmstead’s “History of the Persian Empire”. It is however, like the traditional dating, philologically impossible. Other than the fact that a prophet born in Western Iran would not compose his most significant and complicated hymns in an Eastern Iranian language, other problems such as dating of the language also occur. As mentioned before, the language of the Gathas reflect an Eastern Iranian language that much predates the earliest mention of Medes or indeed any Iranian tribes in Atropatene or western parts of the Iranian Plateau.

The story of Zarathushtra’s birth in Media Atropatene is basically a late Sasanian misunderstanding of history. The Sasanian clergy class, the Magi, were members of a Median tribe who lived in Atropatene. On the other hand, Zarathushtra’s picture of his surrounding gives us the picture of a society divided into the warrior and priestly classes, with Zarathushtra himself being part of the priestly class. The conclusion drawn by the Sasanian Magi was that Zarathushtra must have belonged to the Magi tribe, thus originating from Atropatene. However, everything in the Gathas points us to conclude that Zarathushtra was born in a pastoral society of the Bronze Age and lived somewhere in the steppes of eastern Caspian or Transoxiana in the court of a major chief called Kavi Wishtaspa.

The patronage of Kavi Wishtaspa in this story sounds quite natural and possible. The tradition of kings offering patronage to priests and poets (both roles performed by Zarathushtra) existed all throughout the Iranian history and included almost all major poets and scholars of the historic era. There is no reason to believe that this tradition did not date back to a pre-historic society based on tribal allegiances and patron-beneficiary relationships. This can in fact be traced back to all Indo-European societies in which these relationships existed, and it is quite conceivable that they continued to the time of Zarathushtra.

The inscription of the Avesta on 12 thousand cow skins is obviously another late Sasanian myth. First of all, we know that most parts of the Avesta were composed at a time later than Zarathushtra’s era and that they are in later forms if the “Avestan” language. Additionally, we have no evidence for the Avesta being written down prior to the Sasanian times, before which the texts were preserved orally by the Magi and other clergy. Indeed the oldest available manuscript of Avesta dates back to the 15th century AD. Despite some traditions about the writing of Avesta during the time of the Arsacid emperor, Vologases I (AD 51-78), we know that the Avestan alphabet was based on Sasanian Pahlavi script and was probably created in the early Sasanian times. Consequently, the tale of Wishtaspa’s order for writing of the Avesta is northing more than a myth about the life and struggles of the prophet.

The death of Zarathushtra in Bactria is also another conceivable part of the story. It is easy to imagine that the reforms if the Zarathushtra did not sit well with other Iranian tribes who competed with Kavi Wishtaspa and that struggles and wars might have well been part of Zarathushtra’s life. His denouncement of the “Karpans” (the priests of the old religion) was probably also enraging and could have prompted an unfortunately successful attempt on the prophet’s life.

To summarise, we can say that Zarathushtra was probably born somewhere in the steppes of Central Asia sometimes before the 1000 BC. He was a benefactor in the court of a chief who offered him protection and also probably recognised the unifying effects of his teachings. Most of Zarathushtra’s life was spent in preaching his reforms and composing poems to preserve these teachings. His reforms, which brought the wrath of Kavi Wishtaspa’s rivals as well as the priest of the old religion (Karpans), finally resulted in his death in the hands of one of the Karpans, but his teachings survived way beyond his life, at least in some format.

Zarathushtra’s Teachings

The modern Zoroastrianism, practiced by many in Iran, India, and other parts of the world, is a descendant of the official religion of the Sasanian times. Although based on the teachings of Gathas and Zarathushtra, the Sasanian Zoroastrianism differed significantly from those teachings and included influences from beliefs sometimes even condemned by Zarathushtra. As a result, the study of Gathic Zoroastrianism is conducted separately from the Sasanian religion, and in this section, we only attempt to provide a summary of Gathic teachings, leaving Sasanian Zoroastrianism to a later chapter.

Zarathushtra himself probably did not believe that he is creating a new religion. What we understand from the Gathas is that Zarathushtra saw himself as a reformer, perhaps even recreating an “original” religion. The god of Zarathushtra, Mazda-Ahura (“The Lord Wisdom”) himself belongs to the Old Iranian pantheon or Ahuras and Daevs that sees a parallel in the Old Indian tradition as well, showing us its Indo-Iranian background. Zarathushtra on the other hand, banishes all other gods, maybe Mazda-Ahura’s fellow gods such as Mitra and Varahran, from his cosmology and calls Mazda-Ahura the only god of Rta (Arta: “rightness”). The other gods all become Daevs, evil deities who support Druj (“wrongness”). Although hinting on the idea of duality and the confrontation of rightness and wrongness, Zarathushtra even refrains from naming the chief evil deity, whose name, Angra-mainyu/Ahriman, we know of later sources. He once hints on his name, mentioning Angra, but as if shying away from the name, or trying to preserve his composition from being polluted by the evil, stops before naming the chief Daev.

Zarathushtra also condemns “Kavis and Karpans”, the kings and priests who still support the old religion, the religion of wrongness with its belief in natural forces and multiple gods. Some of these Kavis, of course with the exception of Wishtaspa, have previously refused to extend hospitality to Zarathushtra, and Karpans have probably ill treated him after hearing his teachings. In his compositions, he condemns these followers of wrongness and asks for Mazda-Ahura’s help in keeping his followers from falling to the ways of the Daevs, making it a pity that his wishes seem to have not been fulfilled by the Mazda-Ahura.

Zarathushtra’s world is the place of clashes between good and evil, rightness and wrongness. In his world, a rapidly changing pastoral society rapidly changing into a settled population, the old ways seem to be disappearing and with them, the morality of them. Zarathushtra’s attempt to awaken the wisdom and its lord, Mazda-Ahura, is in fact creating the morality needed for a settled population with a more centralised and concentrated system of government. His teachings become useful for a ruler, Kavi Wishtaspa, who probably best understands the need for such morality, and uses it to his own benefit, possibly founding a power whose memory comes to us in the form of the famed “Kayanid Dynasty” in the traditional history of Iran.

Here, a word has to be said about the nature of Gathas. As mentioned before, these 18 poems are composed in an archaic form of the “Avestan” language dubbed Old Avestan. With the exception of a short text called Yasna Haptanghaiti, no other texts remain from this language. Furthermore, the particular manner of the composition of Gathas, a sign of their nature as essentially oral compositions created for being memorized, akes them extremely hard to understand. Several scholars have devoted many years of their work to untangling the ring composition and other methods that have been used for creating the Gathas, still making them only partly clear. Many issues still remain about the exact meaning of many passages in the Gathas, and we cannot yet claim to understand them perfectly. This would mean that a complete understanding of Zarathushtra’s teaching cannot still be achieved and what is observed of them is only partly clear, both for the modern scholar and the antique Zoroastrian priest. This can be a reason for the immense corruption of Zarathushtra’s teachings and their metamorphosis to the forms we find in history. We will discuss the nature of Achaemenid and Sasanian Zoroastrianism in their respective places.


For Further Reading:

On the Date of Zarathushtra:

Gnoli, Gherado. "Zoroaster in History", Biennial Yarshater Lecture Series 2, Bibliotheca Persica 2000

Gnoli, Gherardo. "Agathias and the Date of Zoroaster". Eran ud Aneran, Festrschrift Marshak, 2003. //

Henning, W.B. Zoroaster: Politician or Witch-Doctor?, London, 1951

Shapur Shahbazi, Ali Reza. "The Traditional Date of Zoroaster Explained", BSOAS, Vol 40, No. 1. London. //

Taqizadeh, S.H. The "Era of Zoroaster", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1947, pp. 33-40.

On Zoroastrian Beliefs:

Boyce, Mary. Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism, University of Chicago Press, 1984

Boyce, Mary.Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, Routledge, 2001

Duchesne-Guillemin, J. Ormazd et Ahrima, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1953

Other Matters:

Humbach, Helmut. The Gathas of Zarathushtra, Heidelburg, 1991

Watkins, Calvert. How to Kill a Dragon. Oxford University Press, 1995

Yarshater, Ehsan. "Iranian national history", in E. Yarshater ed. Cambridge History of Iran, Volume III, Part One, CUP, 1983








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